I’ve tried to start this piece several different times, each draft hitting that well worn truism that our life is a journey. Or rather, a series of smaller journeys merged into one lifelong ultra sized journey.
Imagine that? Each section of our life set out, with convenient aid stations along the way. If we follow this idea to its natural conclusion we could justifiably expect that at the end of it all we’d arrive fatigued and chaffed, wanting nothing more than our finishing medal, a blanket and somewhere nice to lie down.
With that journey, be it on the “meta” side of things, that is, talking about our life in general; Or more specifically when we discuss running, we approach our travels with a sense of expectation. Put simply, expectations are what we consider most likely to happen when uncertainty exists. Our expectations are based on themes that we develop or learn through our life. Running for instance, always involves a high degree of uncertainty. Every time we step out the door we enter a void of what ifs? From tweaked calves on our first steps, the neighbour’s vicious dog being out, recalcitrant tree roots, gastric trouble through to the performance of our lives; The one constant we have is uncertainty. We are able to take these first steps largely by drawing on our expectations i.e. that we know the way, the gate will be shut to keep Cujo in, our training and preparation has been adequate, that we are resilient and tough enough overcome that which would loom out from the shadows. Expectations can cut both ways however; The unhelpful repercussions of having negative expectations can greatly impact on both our performance and more importantly our enjoyment of this wonderful sport.
Every time we step out the door we enter a void of what ifs?
Keeping with the theme of progression, the major shift in my development as a runner has been evaluating and managing my own expectations and anxiety when it comes to competition. A bit of backstory here. I was (am) no natural athlete, I was an extremely overweight child with chronic illness who loved books, music and not running, I was terrible with any form of physical endeavour, asthmatic, arthritic, I was forced to run during intermediate and secondary school. I A) SUCKED and B) Hated it. Fast forward 26 years ( Matthew finds joy of running..reads Emerson..ergo perfect exhilaration..gets fitter..”Oh the Trees!” Etc etc). My expectations were unconsciously and irrationally biased so far into the red that taking the step into organised competition felt like the most psychologically deleterious thing I could do. For me, on a base level, the equation was simple: Running + Others = Trauma =Anxiety.
To compensate for my deeply held belief that I could not succeed, I got into a habit of training consistently, with outwardly positive results. I had to finish, I must. I learnt that I can, as it turns out, suffer with the best of them. I’m also, when able to reflect rationally and with argon insight, not that bad at running. These epiphanies didn’t help manage my inner sense of fear and intimidation around other runners I gauged as superior (read: everybody), or that niggling sense that somehow I was a fraud, who, when the chips were down, would be found wanting. That didn’t stop me entering races, to prove myself wrong (or perversely, right) and as night follows day I eventually stepped up to what I considered at the time to be the pinnacle of human endurance, the 100 kilometre ultra marathon.
I had to finish, I must. I learnt that I can, as it turns out, suffer with the best of them.
Recognising that tackling this goal would require some support and preparation,I engaged the services of a coach. I became fitter than I thought I ever could be, I had team colours to fly, and a sound strategy for race day. My splits were scrawled on my arm and I had enough space food to choke a horse. Having largely avoided the pre-race festivities (I am a fraud, remember) I lined up the next morning feeling calm, the negative thoughts were present, but they were distant and with far less salience than usual.
I have discussed my 100 kilometre experience in another publication, in an article I wrote about runner’s blues. So I’ll spare you the gore. I believe the words “Endless epic bummer”, “One of the most confronting psychological and physical episodes of my life” and “muttering nauseous shamble” were used. There were nothing but negative expectations and unending terror from kilometre 34 to 60. Despite this, or in spite of this, I finished the race in daylight, two hours over my goal time, tearful, pale and utterly triumphant.
Coming from a place of being able to run continuously for 200 metres to being able to run two and bit marathons back to back has removed most of the uncertainty from my life in terms of running. Obviously, there are issues largely beyond my control, weather, Sanjay the psychotic Rottweiler (he is real*) and injury, although with smart preparation and care I can hopefully reduce this risk. The challenge remains in terms of gradually improving my performance over time, however having an expectation that I can achieve and I have nothing to prove to myself feels infinitely less exhausting than my previous experience.
How did I manage my expectations in the aftermath of achieving such a goal? how did I continue to build on my new found confidence and positive mental attitude? Easy, I dropped out of my next ultra; The impulsively entered Riverhead Forest 50k on Easter Saturday. Did Not Finish, 38 KM in and completely happy. I had a great 35km, then I got foot sore, bored and homesick. I had two choices, mash through another 12km of hot gravel, wracked with fear that I won’t succeed and I HAVE to finish. Or, I could stop now, in my home forest, happy, tired and confident. It was a counter intuitive place to be, having attested in the past to the “unless there’s a bone showing, keep going” school of thought. I mean, I’ve written articles THIS YEAR urging people to “push on” and “test your limits”. Conversely, That’s what I did. I tested my limits of psychological distress, BY STOPPING.
Call it a cop out or rationalisation if you will, however the understanding that I could stop if I wanted to, that this didn’t mean I was weak or a bad person, has made a huge difference in my outlook towards running and life in general. I guess I’ve gone from being quietly terrified to quietly..confident (er? ish?). Sitting here now, it’s difficult to convey the shift in mental state, whereby I did something because I knew that I could, not because I was afraid that I shouldn’t. So I dropped out, and you know what happened? Nothing.
*Full disclosure; The dog’s name probably is not Sanjay. However in fairness, I’ve never asked.
Have you ever quit during an event? How did you feel and manage it?